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India’s interests tilt eastwards, it walks a new tightrope

India’s economic and strategic interests are hugely tied to the Indian Ocean, the 21st century’s theatre of huge rivalries. If Trump translates his rhetoric into reality, a harried China will be a nightmare there.

Written by Ram Madhav | Updated: January 2, 2017 8:16:50 am
Donald Trump, Trump taiwan, US taiwan, Taiwan call trump, US China, Trump China, news, latest news, US news, world news, international news US President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. (Source: Reuters)

“Nations have no permanent friends or allies in diplomacy; they have only permanent interests,” said the famous English statesman Lord Palmerstone. One country that takes this seriously is America. Henry Kissinger, the man who affected a major shift in US foreign policy as secretary of state during the Nixon regime by allying with ideological arch rival China, amended the statement by stating, “America has no permanent friends or foes; it has only permanent interests.”

china-vs-americaNearly 45 years after the Nixon-Kissinger duo’s path-breaking friendship overtures to Mao’s China, the world is witnessing another American leader, president-elect Donald Trump, attempting to implement that formula, this time to say that China is no friend of America’s but a job-stealer and an enemy.After getting elected, Trump continued his tirade against China, giving enough indications that what he said during the campaign wasn’t just poll rhetoric.

His ten-minute phone conversation with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, followed by his comments to Fox News on a “One China policy” have rattled China and made many sit up. “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a “One China” policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade,” Trump told the channel with his hallmark bluntness.

Also read: Expand partnership with US, limit rifts with China

Two days after his phone call to the Taiwanese president came another set of comments from Trump. Through tweets, Trump commented, “Did China ask us if it was okay to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the US doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!” Trump’s decision to appoint a fierce critic of China, author of the book Death by China, economist and professor at the University of California, Irvine, Peter Navarro, to head the newly created White House Trade Council leaves no one in doubt that US-China relations under Trump will be a great deal of fire and brimstone.

Will India remain unaffected by this changing dynamic between the two superpowers? Especially when the Indian Ocean region is emerging as the 21st century’s powerhouse?

In the last couple of years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy has included a conscious strategy of de-hyphenation. A spirit of bilateralism, uninfluenced by subjective third country factors, has been the benchmark of our foreign relations recently. Prime Minister Modi has developed close personal and working relations with both President Obama and President Xi Jinping. At the same time, he has further strengthened India’s bilateral relationship with Japan on the one hand and Russia on the other.

However, in a changing scenario, India will not find it too easy to maintain this de-hyphenation policy. There will be expectations and consequent pressures from each side on India. The Chinese media’s recent warning in the state-run Global Times, asking India to “draw some lessons from the recent interactions between Beijing and Trump over Taiwan” is an example. It even called India a “spoilt child”, the provocation for the harsh words being HH Dalai Lama’s meeting with the President of India Pranab Mukherjee.

India’s ambition to grow as an “influential and responsible global power” calls for it to manage equilibrium in the region. It is a challenge for India to ensure that its neighbourhood stays less volatile. At the same time, India has had long-term relations with America. The two countries were once described by PM Vajpayee as “natural allies”. In the last two years, PM Modi has taken these relations much farther and deeper. We need them in our pursuit of progress. At the same time, India needs to be watchful about US moves with at least four important countries — Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. These have a greater bearing on India’s interests in the region and beyond.

It is highly unlikely that President Trump would take a hostile stance vis-à-vis India. In our conversations with some members of Trump’s transition team, what emerged prominently was that while no one doubted his pro-India credentials, the relationship is more likely to be “transactional” in nature. In a “transactional” relationship, mere goodwill and a “natural alliance” are not going to be sufficient. There will be expectations of “give and take”. India needs to prepare for this.

India’s diplomatic interests are tilting eastwards towards the Indian Ocean region where the global power axis lies today. India’s trade, economic and strategic interests are hugely tied to the Indian Ocean. In this century, the Indian Ocean is going to be the theatre of great power and huge rivalries. If Trump translates his rhetoric on issues like the South China Sea, the trade imbalance, Taiwan and currency devaluation into reality, it may lead to greater tensions in the region. A much-harried China, with its economic and military might, will be a security nightmare in the region.

India needs to do a tightrope walk in such circumstances. The times pose a challenge, no doubt, but they also provide an opportunity. What we need is some out-of-the-box thinking in our diplomatic objectives and goals. Right now, that is missing. But we can’t afford the lack of it for too long. The writer is national general secretary, BJP, and director, India Foundation

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